As Marisa will mention in an upcoming podcast, last year felt like it was about seventeen goddamn years long, but that doesn’t mean we shied away from the challenge of combing through the approximately one million 2017 releases to determine which, of this year’s many fine offerings (finer than what the year had to offer in general, for sure) constituted the 20 best movies of the year. Regular SportsAlcohol.com Film Gang Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse each submitted individual Top 20 lists which were aggregated into a single Top 20 which featured relatively few movies with four-for-four list support (about 25%, I believe) but plenty of movies that got two or three of us way on board (unlike past years, no single-vote wonders made the list). Now that the mechanics are out of the way, let’s get to the movies themselves. A podcast, as always, will follow.
The 20 Best Movies of 2017
20. The Beguiled
Big year for mushrooms, huh? That detail and so many from The Beguiled comes from either the source novel or the Don Siegel adaptation starring a young(ish) Clint Eastwood (haven’t read the former, have seen the latter). On pure plot terms, Sofia Coppola’s retake doesn’t seem necessary; some of the more memorably baroque details from Siegel’s hothouse are softened, and Coppola doesn’t throw in any major new twists. Yet she also makes the material entirely her own simply by examining the lives of three plantation-dwelling women, lives upended by the arrival of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). Farrell flirts with all three of them—leader Nicole Kidman, sad-eyed Kirsten Dunst, and youthful Elle Fanning—and rattles their gilded Southern cage. Coppola has one of cinema’s great eyes for milieu and how her characters navigate environments, whether unfamiliar or stifling. She gets a particularly great performance from her third collaboration with Dunst, whose infatuation with Farrell is arguably the most desperate, making this Beguiled far more affecting than the pulpier Siegel/Eastwood verison. It’s also sometimes hilarious, courtesy of Elle Fanning’s A-level petulance. As far as I’m concerned, Coppola could systematically remake 20 more movies and she’d probably come up with something similarly distinctive. – Jesse
There was no film in 2017 that did more with framing and space than Columbus. By placing the seemingly mundane interiors of library shelving and the knick-knacks of a home beside the modernist masterpieces that dot the Columbus, Indiana landscape, director Kogonada makes the everyday feel sublime. It’s a carefully constructed film and while some viewers might find this fussy, I was enthralled. Playing out against these stunning structures is a Linklater-esque story of two lonely people drawn together by similar interests and circumstances: they are both stuck in the town because of parental complications and share a fascination with architecture. It’s not the biggest story, but it doesn’t need to be when this much consideration has been put into it. From an aborted seduction that plays out entirely in a hotel suite’s mirrors to the way a suit and hat hung in a bureau begins to take the shape of its absent wearer, every shot and performance has something to surprise and engage. If the beats feel a little bit familiar, at least the craft never does. – Sara
18. War for the Planet of the Apes
Lots of folks will express surprise that a reboot of the Planet of the Apes series could result in one of the richest, most critically-acclaimed trilogies in modern film. I won’t. The Apes movies have always been smarter, and better than their campy reputation, and the only real surprise to me is that the 20th Century Fox that bungled their way through the Fantastic Four movies, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, and the direst of the X-Men movies got out of their own way enough to make three new Apes films that combined dazzling visual effects with serious, emotional, thoughtful storytelling. It’s unfortunate, if somewhat fair enough, that War for the Planet of the Apes seems to have been seen as “more of the same” by audiences this year. Sure, it isn’t as radical a change as the leap from Rise‘s sunlit pre-apocalyptic prison-break setting to the post-apocalyptic, rainy confrontations of Dawn (or the wild shifts between sequels in the original series). But just as the previous two films focused on the character of Caesar, charting his arc from confused child to revolutionary to leader, so too does War really drill down and give Caesar a final set of deeply personal and emotional challenges on his way to entering ape legend. The performance work that the actors, again led by a spectacular Andy Serkis, and the people of Weta Workshop contributed improves even on the amazing things they accomplished earlier in the series, and the human cast (seemingly smaller than ever) led by Woody Harrelson is equally good. Really, it was a pretty good year for big-budget sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking (sure, there were some terrible exceptions, but even most of the comic book movies that didn’t make this list were above average this year), and if this is the finale of this new Apes series, it’s a relief that it went out with such a powerfully emotional, morally interesting film. – Nathaniel
This was the only movie outside of our top ten to receive votes for all four of us, and we all saw it together back in September, so here’s the SportsAlcohol.com film core all talking Aronofsky.
What seems to be getting lost in the larger conversation around mother! is how great the performers in it are. And that’s really all you can call them, since they’re doing little more than pantomiming Aronofsky’s id. Some, like Pfeiffer and Harris, are playing more campy registers. Others like Bardem and the Gleesons are terrifying embodiments of destructive male ego. But Lawrence, who’s been sadly overlooked for her work here in a busy year, ties it all together. As her muted domestic goddess slowly (sometimes literally) cracks under the deranged pressure cooker her dream home has become, her early blankness becomes the ultimate metaphor to throw your larger interpretations on. Whether it’s an allegory of Biblical proportions, a treatise on climate change, or a portrait of the artist as a horrible man, she’s the one who suffers, and bears it all, as women always have.
Also, do you guys think J-Law used sense memory of times she had to hang out with Aronofsky’s friends to help access the appropriate levels of suffering? Even if you doubt it (or doubt that Aronofsky ever has friends over), there’s something about the whole scheme of mother! suffering that rendered it, for me, mordantly funny in a way that occasionally seeps into Aronofsky’s other work, but here pretty much floods through it. What can you do but laugh?
Actually, Jesse, I’m pretty sure she’s conjuring up the moments when she had to hang out with Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. Tell me those two wouldn’t sit on the sink you just told them wasn’t braced.
I’ve always associated Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher—they always seemed neck-and-neck to me, trading movies movies: The Game, Pi, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and so on. They’re not actually very similar directors, but at the time to me they seemed they were both focusing on a certain kind of aggressive masculinity. But I love how, while Fincher has settled into elevating suspenseful mass-market novels (which he’s really good at), Aronofsky shows no signs of reining it in. People were jarred by the rock monsters in Noah? Time to double down on the Biblical sacrifices!
Despite loving a few of his movies and admiring most of the others, I don’t tend to think of Aronofsky as one of my personal favorite filmmakers. But I DO think of him as somebody that makes movies I can’t miss seeing. Whether they end up brilliant or moving or a humbug (or any combination of the three) they’re always super interesting and worth seeing. ALSO, styling his title all lower-case with an exclamation mark? Perfect.
16. T2: Trainspotting
I am the exact right age to call this film woefully underrated. Perhaps people who are younger than I am were annoyed by its heavy, heavy nostalgia, and maybe people older than I am don’t have the required affinity for the original Trainspotting to be as fully satisfied by this film as I was. But it hit me in just the right spot, as I explained in our Danny Boyle/decades-later-sequel podcast. It honored what I loved about Trainspotting while simultaneously puncturing it. It ruminated on what it means to get older, and the relief and regret that comes with it. And it also has a funny-as-hell heist scene in the middle, with some Ewan McGregor singing. – Marisa
Before this film came out, I snarkily retitled it Please Give Me All the BAFTAs. As excited as I was about a new Christopher Nolan movie, I wasn’t so into the Dad Subject Matter. I mean, didn’t Joe Wright already have that Dunkirk thing covered in Atonement?
I wasn’t predicting that Nolan would be able to port over the ground-level intensity he honed in his Batman trilogy to this material. By focusing on the minute-to-minute experience of the soldiers—in three different timelines, each concentrating on smaller and smaller periods—he really made me experience the events on a visceral level. I thought it would be a history lesson, I ended up with a gut punch. – Marisa
14. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Tell me, dear reader, did you finish watching Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2016 film The Lobster and turn to the person next to you and say, “That was good and all, but I wish he’d make something more like a Haneke-style finger-wagging thriller crossed with Kubrick’s The Shining”? Then have I got good news for you! That description, as with all of Lanthimos’s work, comes nowhere close to capturing the absolute gonzo nightmare that unfurls here, but it hopefully gives you some idea of what you’re in for. Starring Colin Farrell as a doctor with a dark secret, Nicole Kidman as his chilly wife, and Barry Keoghan as the unnervingly polite young man who’s blackmailing them while eating the most disgusting plate of pasta this side of Gummo, Deer twists the deadpan absurdity of Lanthimos’s previous efforts into a deranged fable of bourgeois guilt, methodical revenge, and the metaphorical potential of biting a piece of your own arm off. It’s cold, it’s cruel, it’s grotesque, and, in its denouement, even borderline reprehensible. And I loved every minute of it. – Sara
13. The Post
“Would that we continue to get ‘minor’ films like this from the both of them for many years to come.” That’s what I wrote the last time we had a new Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film on one of our end-of-year lists. And sure enough, two years after Bridge of Spies, they’re back with another cracker of a film about 20th century American history. And if Spies seemed to miss getting a bigger audience because we’re taking Spielberg for granted (maybe his historical-mode movies strike some folks as “eat your vegetables” propositions?), it feels a little like The Post is in danger of being swamped by the same of-the-moment relevance that caused Spielberg to drop everything and get in theaters like nine months after he decided to make it. Sure, it’s a rousing experience that benefits from audiences, worn down and angry about the Trump administration’s behavior, applauding the vicarious thrill of seeing a corrupt presidential administration get rebuffed hard by the press and the courts. But the movie doesn’t only work because it can be perceived as a middle finger extended at our stablest genius. It’s also a perfect example of how Spielberg’s storytelling prowess and so-great-it’s-invisible technical fluency can turn a story that really is made up of a series of meetings and cocktail parties into an exciting and invigorating crowd-pleaser. Hanks is a delight as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and he’s surrounded by a cast of ringers in even the smallest supporting parts, but the real showstopper performance comes from another actor it is easy to take for granted nowadays. Meryl Streep has been so good for so long that it would be easy to overcorrect and think of her as overrated, particularly when some of the roles she’s been lauded for (or been rewarded at the box-office for) recently have been more thinly drawn than she deserves. But then she’ll deliver something like her Katherine Graham here, a woman certainly not outside the Streep wheelhouse, but fully realized and imbued with such a rich array of emotion. When I saw The Post, the audience burst into applause during what amounts to little more than a dialogue scene, and they did it because of Streep. – Nathaniel
12. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
I’ve written more than my share about Adam Sandler and how goddamned great he is this movie, and what a surprisingly comfortable fit much of his persona turns out to be for a Noah Baumbach character, a self-aware, self-doubting slacker with “good recommendations.” So let me talk for a moment about Ben Stiller, who plays Sandler’s half-brother. Stiller has explored a more poisonous variation on his more neurotic comedy for Baumbach in Greenberg, and a more nuanced version of his farcical side for Baumbach’s While We’re Young. There are plenty of Stiller-isms here, too, but it’s also a performance of remarkable openness, as he lets us see how his neuroses can be inflamed by the tenor of conversation with his self-absorbed father (Dustin Hoffman). “Hurt people hurt people” went a refrain in Greenberg, and Meyerowitz gives us a Stiller character who is hurt, and trying his damndest to avoid hurting others, or at least to hurt others less. It’s that touch of gentleness, amidst plenty of trademark Baumbach prickliness, that makes Meyerowitz such a distinctive entry in the writer-director’s filmography. – Jesse
11. Phantom Thread
Paul Thomas Anderson
There’s a lot of beauty in this movie, from perfectly draped dresses to the crinkle in Daniel Day-Lewis’ eyes when he smiles to the way P.T. Anderson perfectly, slowly zooms in on him and Vicky Krieps as he professes his love for her. But beauty comes at a price. Is it worth making a gorgeous garment if its patron doesn’t respect it? Is it worth giving up your life, playing second-fiddle to Genius (and dealing with a pesky sister), if it means getting to live in inspiration’s orbit? Is it worth making a film if, once it’s done, you have to release it to everyone else? And is it worth going to see a film in all its 70mm splendor if you have to sit next to a New York matinee-goer who insists on actually snapping his fingers to Jonny Greenwood’s (admittedly jazzy) score? Is it all, as brought up multiple times throughout the movie, just a curse? Anderson brings up these questions in a way that somehow lets you luxuriate in them—well, maybe not the penultimate one—as they’re constructed, rather than picking at the frayed ends until the whole thing is taken apart. For a film about spinsterhood, marital resentment, and inflated egos, it sure is lovely. – Marisa
10. Blade Runner 2049
For Blade Runner fans, Denis Villenueve’s sequel is a miracle. They managed to come up with characters, a story, and heady sci-fi concepts that place it securely next to the original film. And that story complements the original film while managing to preserve its mysteries. The verbal/narrative tap-dance done in Edward James Olmos’s scene alone was enough to win over this fan wholeheartedly.
For non-fans, the new film offers more straightforward mystery plotting and conventionally satisfying storytelling without sacrificing the atmosphere and dreamy sci-fi langours that made the original so influential. Ryan Gosling proves that he’s a perfect noir lead (really, between his hard-boiled coolness here and his silly seediness in The Nice Guys he should just always be solving a mystery), and Harrison Ford makes another potent stop on his tour of iconic characters from thirty years ago. Deckard doesn’t show up until relatively late in this film, and it isn’t exactly his story but, as with Mark Hamill in The Last Jedi, the movie generates a great deal of power in the way it nods toward a larger, and necessary, cultural and societal change taking place. – Nathaniel
9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Star Wars has, from the beginning, been a bigger, richer thing than accounted for by its detractors and even its admirers. There’s the simple to grasp, but still perceptive, political allegory. The dazzling technical achievement depicting a universe filled with sci-fi/fantasy wonders. The thrilling action and derring-do, updating the cliffhanger adventure serials of George Lucas’s youth. And there’s the potent moral storytelling that truly marks them as modern fairy-tales. And Star Wars: The Last Jedi is truly Star Wars at its best, satisfying each of those elements spectacularly. Writer/director Rian Johnson, picking up the baton from J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, honors and deepens both the classic characters from the original series and the delightful newcomers from The Force Awakens, while also immediately making the material his own, infusing his middle-chapter with a distinct sense of humor and bold storytelling decisions (both of which have rankled a certain sub-section of fans), as well as a plethora of visual flourishes that bring a new perspective to classic Star Wars iconography. As political allegory, the film strikes just the right Star Wars balance, offering a seemingly-timeless story that also has powerful, urgent resonance with modern times, with its story of a beleaguered multi-cultural/racial coalition trying to retain hope in a conflict with resurgent fascist movement led by spectacularly angry white guys. And in what has proven to be its most controversial element (again, at least among that subsection of fans), Johnson gives a surprising and moving storyline to Luke Skywalker. This new Star Wars trilogy is shaping up to be about, among other things, the very act of continuing a story like this, with a transition to new faces and voices (like the young woman and black man who are our new leads), along with the necessary growing pains and grappling with legacy that entails, And after his brief appearance in the previous film, Mark Hamill returns to Star Wars with perhaps the best performance in the series and owns every second he’s onscreen as a Luke who finds that there is still more for him to teach and to learn before his part of the story is over. – Nathaniel
8. Call Me By Your Name
Throw a rock in a video store (provided you can still find one), and you’ll probably hit a coming of age romance. The story that Call Me By Your Name tells isn’t unique in conception, but in execution it’s one of the most beguiling, sensitively realized depictions of first love in some time. All courtships unfold as a dance, but for Elio, a preternaturally smart teenager, and Oliver, the aloof older graduate student studying with Elio’s father, it’s a particularly tentative, guarded one, given that they’re both men living in the early 80’s and there’s a considerable age difference between them. The film never makes an issue of this, though, and it allows for a naturalness and warmth in their growing attraction that feels unique and genuinely erotic to watch. It all plays out against an Italian countryside in summertime that’s captured by director Luda Guadagnino with the same sensuality as the bodies that inhabit it. What sets it apart from being mere wish fulfillment is the depth of the performances (particularly Timothee Chalamet who brings an authentic awkwardness to Elio that clues us into his inner turmoil) and the sadness that infuses the film’s back half as the season, and the affair, draw inevitably to a close. It’s here that the parallels to Linklater’s Before Trilogy come through most clearly, and with good reason, as Guadagnino is apparently planning to revisit Elio and Oliver again down the line. I’m not sure how I feel about this development, as I thought the epilogue to Andre Aciman’s source novel, excised from the film, was a perfectly bittersweet capper to the story. Then again, Call Me By Your Name feels like such a pure gift. Like anyone who’s thought about an early dalliance from time to time, I wouldn’t mind getting it again. – Sara
7. Logan Lucky
“What part of Florida?” It’s a small moment, when ace safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) asks for clarification on a detail of a story of how his nest egg has vanished, but it’s crucial to explaining how much I love Steven Soderbergh’s caper picture comeback: funny, unexpected, regionally specific, human-scale but immensely satisfying. I’ve gone on about this movie and a second viewing hasn’t diminished anything I love about it. Like the rest of Soderbergh’s genre-y best (Ocean’s 11, Haywire, Out of Sight), I’m certain I’ll be revisiting it many more times in the future. – Jesse
6. A Ghost Story
There isn’t another film on this list like A Ghost Story because there aren’t many (any?) movies like A Ghost Story. It’s a powerful movie about grief and memory and the passage of time (among other things) and it is centered around the potentially silly image of a man in a child’s bedsheet ghost costume. Jesse described it as post-actor, and that’s a good way of describing the way it works, because while Rooney Mara gives an affecting portrayal of a woman suffering from and dealing with the loss of a loved one, the movie seems to only become deeper and more moving as it leaves her behind and expands its perspective beyond any one actor or character. The charmingly lo-fi ghost design and director David Lowery’s intimate, lyrical storytelling style belies the impressive technical design of the film, capable of eliciting a gasp with a cut or a camera move. Really, it’s just a beautiful film. – Nathaniel
5. Get Out
I had no better theatre experience in 2017 than watching Get Out in a packed house at BAM opening weekend. Everyone was hyped up even before the lights went down but as the cold open played out, the nervous giggles and shrieks dissolved into an uncomfortable but awed silence. Referencing both John Carpenter and every news report of a black man killed by police you’ve seen in the past couple years (and we’ve seen far too many), it both instantly draws in and implicates its viewers. Whatever you were expecting from sketch comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, he makes it clear early on it will play with conventions, but will be anything but conventional.
While on paper it sounds like a social satire in the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner vein, Peele has greater aims than merely skewering self-congratulatory, casually racist bourgeois white people (expertly played by Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, and Allison Williams. Caleb Landry Jones is also there). This is a suburban nightmare where the people living inside the fenced houses are the villains for once. Black man Chris, played by the magnetic Daniel Kaluuya, would have to be on his guard at his white girlfriend Rose’s house, whether the other shoe of their demonic plans ever dropped or not. Drop it does, though, and once Rose started fiddling around in her purse, my theatre was reacting with gasps, shouts at the screen, and popcorn throwing. Watching roughly a month after Trump’s inauguration, it was a cathartic coming together but, as Peele reminds us, it’s one white viewers like myself can comfortably enjoy as a feverish fantasy. For most black people in America, the sunken place is real and inescapable. As long as that tension exists in this country, there’s no way any of us can wake up. – Sara
It’s not that Colossal shows that giant monster movies can be about something deeper (Godzilla could have told you that sixty years ago). It’s not even that the basic premise, a young woman find herself sharing a strange psychic bond with a giant monster, is all that unusual (this was, in fact, a surprisingly common thread in the kaiju films made in the 1990s). So the thing that makes Colossal so special is the execution. Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis both offer career-best performances in the film, and director Nacho Vigalondo perfects the balance between sci-fi fun and relationship comedy that digs into trickier emotional terrain that he’d attempted with his previous film, Extraterrestrial. Sold as almost something of a romantic comedy about a floundering young woman returning to her hometown, I think you’d have to forgive any marketing department for being a bit misleading, because the thornier, deeper territory the film wades into in its second half are bound up with some delightful and shocking narrative twists and turns that I’d be loath to spoil for you here. Suffice to say that Hathaway’s character’s problems are not as cutesy as those in a typical rom-com and she’s confronted by a darker side of masculine expectations and entitlement than you might expect. And while kaiju fans may have been disappointed by the relative lack of monster action in the film, each of the moments are well constructed and fun and they build to a supremely satisfying conclusion. – Nathaniel
3. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen this movie and want to, just skip this blurb. The tl;dr version is it’s great!
The ending of Three Billboards leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Martin McDonagh doesn’t like letting people off the hook. There are two characters in a car together, and they could be each other’s salvation or ruin, and he doesn’t let you know which one wins out in the end.
But the trick of the movie isn’t the withholding of what happens after the get into the car together—it’s in the fact that they end up in the car together at all. The movie starts with them as more than antagonists, the worst of each other feeding into the worst of each other. And then the horrors of life work on them, sometimes through each other, and by the end you’re wondering if maybe they’re going to kiss.
Martin McDonagh, with his Irish playwright sensibilities, is one of the few who can pull this off and still have it feel satisfying. He can see the utter senselessness in the world, and also the humanity of everyone living within it. I’ve heard secondhand that this was interpreted in some circles as an “all lives matter” theme, which I don’t think the movie was trying for except in the way I do believe McDonagh is interested in all lives, from the mom living through her worst nightmare and the racist cop looking for a small sign that he’s done one thing right in his life, down to the violent ex who’s looking for a clean slate and his new girlfriend who’s put in a bad spot, zoo-wise. That’s not to say that all of these people get what they’re looking for, or deserve our affection. But all lives matter to McDonagh in that all lives are imperfect, all people are flawed, and everyone is still subjecting themselves through the indignity of living in search of the same things.
Of course, it helps that McDonagh has a few ringers in his back pocket: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson. If you want to convince people that everybody has a story worth noticing, obviously they’re going to command attention. Each one of them broke my heart in a different way, and, when they were done, McDonagh brought in “Walk Away Renée” to finish the job. – Marisa
2. Lady Bird
They’re shopping. They’re tired and cranky. They start picking at each other about things of no consequence. Then they stop, mid-fight, to admire a dress that they both agree is the right one.
That’s a scene in Lady Bird, but it’s also every fight I’ve ever had with a member of my family. My dad used to describe skirmishes I used to have with my sister as always sounding something like this:
“I hate you!”
“I hate you, too!”
“Wanna play Nintendo?”
I don’t know if the guy sitting next to me saw himself in that bargain-hunting scene. I didn’t attend the screening with him, so I didn’t get to pick his brain for his thoughts afterward. But, later in the movie, when a young teenage boy talked about rolling his own cigarettes so as not to “participate in the economy,” the guy started visibly squirming in his seat, presumably out of identification.
That’s not to say that Lady Bird‘s charm is in its universal relatability. In fact, I don’t know how it would come across to someone who is actually still a teenager. People have said that the difference between YA and something that just prominently features teenagers is just marketing—Lady Bird proves that wrong. It’s meant to be watched by someone who’s survived the teenage years, moved beyond them, and can look back and laugh (or squirm) and say, “I remember that feeling. I was so sure of my own talents. I was so confident in my own abilities. I thought I was the exception to every rule, and sometimes that belief made it true.”
It is unimaginably hard to capture that feeling without condescending to those characters. Because, in the end, you know they’re wrong. They’re not as indestructible as they think they are. But instead of taking any joy in bursting that bubble, director Greta Gerwig instead freezes time and says, “Hey, look, wasn’t that such a beautiful bubble?” Gerwig didn’t have to take them down a peg. As suggested by the end of the movie, life will do that for them. She’ll just be waiting there with a package of tissues and a Dave Matthews CD. – Marisa
Listen, every once in awhile, if you’re very lucky, you get to see a film that feels like it was designed down to its last detail just for you. It will take place during the course of a senior year around the same time you yourself graduated from high school, a time of uncertainty not just for you, but the whole country, whether you were paying much attention to the news from Baghdad or not. It will feature a prickly, selfish, outspoken, but ultimately kind lead protagonist, and when you read reviews from people who say they find her unlikable, you will feel a little sad for who you used to be, and sometimes still are. It will make you think of high school dances in cafeterias with terrible themes. It will make you remember the first boy you thought you could love, and realizing that you’ll love each other in different, better ways. It will feature a needle drop to Dave Matthews Band that will make you guffaw so loud in the theatre that the man next to you will jump out of his seat. It will make you roll your eyes in recognition that only pretentious douchebags who will tell you lies about their sexual experience read Howard Zinn alone in coffee shops. It will make you remember how much you wanted to get out of your hometown, how you found the people who wanted to stay there forever weird, and they felt the same way about you. It will make you think about the things you took for granted back then, especially the people closest to you. It will make you think how you made it to the big city, and it was great, but not as great as it seemed when you were in a place that seemed small in comparison. It will dawn on you the things that seemed like background noise at the time, that you are only now realizing how important and difficult they were for the people you loved, even if you didn’t always feel they loved you in exactly the ways you wanted. You will walk out of the theatre drying your eyes, wondering how someone could have gotten everything so right, like you’ve been captured in amber, put through a string, and placed close to someone’s heart. And then you’ll call your mother. – Sara
1. The Florida Project
We all weighed in on this one.
The Florida Project wasn’t number one on all the ballots — just mine, actually! — but it placed in everyone’s top five. What surprised me so much about how much I loved it is how central kids are to the narrative. I mean, I like kids well enough, and I don’t automatically dislike movies about them, but I’m far more drawn towards coming-of-age stories about teenagers than I am to movies celebrating the sanctity and/or innocence and/or glory of childhood. It’s just so difficult to make a kid your main character and not wind up with something cloying, or artificial, or cutesy. I think I responded most to Sean Baker’s willingness to portray the roughness of these kids, the boldness that’s not exclusively tied up in bravery (or the bravery that’s not necessarily used to noble or even well-meaning ends). Yet as much as these unruly kids at a seedy Orlando motel clearly take their cues from some pretty unruly grown-up role models, they’re also not miniature adults, wisecracking and swearing for our amusement. They evoke childhood in a way that I don’t know that I’ve seen since maybe Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. Maybe that’s also why I loved this and merely liked Baker’s previous movie, Tangerine. There, he certainly brought me into a world that I don’t know, following the lives of a couple of transgender sex workers on Christmas in Los Angeles. But while the performances are remarkable and the movie empathetic, I don’t know that I learned a whole lot from that experience: There are moments of unexpected humor, and a lot of it is as upsetting as you might guess. You could say the same about The Florida Project, but the way Baker mixes the beauty and the tragedy of these characters kept surprising me, somehow, right up until the gut-punch ending. I wasn’t just bawling because I have a kid of my own, right? Right?!
Jesse, there’s no way of knowing. I can’t separate out the fact that I have a toddler from my experience watching this film. But I can also say that 6-year-old girls are a complete mystery to me. Who are these little people? What do they do all day? Jesse, you’re right that the transition from Little Kid to Big Kid is not one that we know how to process in art. Off the top of my head, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the only other thing that’s even tried to capture what it’s like for someone at the age when you’re old enough to try and be your own person, but find it impossible to navigate the world of adult rules. So I 100 percent agree that it’s an amazing achievement for Sean Baker to focus on kids so beautifully.
I also loved how the setting factored into the story so beautifully. If there’s a rite of passage for a kid that age, it’s either a First Holy Communion or a trip to Disney World. That theme park and what it represents looms over everything (and gives the film its title), but the characters mostly get a second-hand, shadow version of the Disney experience. The Magic Castle may be in Kissimmee, Florida, but it’s a long way to the Magic Kingdom.
I was also, to borrow a Disney-approved descriptor, enchanted by the film’s setting. The kitsch on display here is of a different sort than the sparkly attractions of a theme park, but Baker’s shift from iPhone (as used in Tangerine) to 35mm photography allows the rundown strips and novelty shops to take on a splendor all their own. When Moonee and her friends are traipsing about, Baker often captures the places they pass at their eye level, the lavenders, oranges, and pinks eye-poppingly bright, a makeshift fantasyland of the kids’ own making, where the chipping paint is part of the charm.
He takes equal care with the world of his adult characters, where chipping paint is a daily nuisance, as embodied by Willem Dafoe playing Bobby, the caretaker of The Magic Castle. It’s easy to forget, given his recent villainous streak in both blockbusters and Wes Anderson joints, that Dafoe first made his name playing a Christ-like soldier in Platoon before moving on to the holy man himself in Last Temptation. He taps into that same reservoir of resolute goodness here, playing Bobby as a fundamentally decent man whose character arc never rises above doing his best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes coming up short. A lesser actor might try to make more of a part like this than necessary, but Dafoe is as generous a performer as Baker is a writer and director. Such humanity, in a year that seemed to lack so much of it, feels like a lifeline to the viewer too.
I figure the question of whether you parents were so moved by the film because you have a kid is a personal one (I mean, presumably the answer is “yes,” at least in part), but you could always just remember that we all cried at the end of this one. Because it really has a cumulative power thanks to everything you guys have mentioned. When we talked on the podcast about what makes us cry in a movie, I think we specifically mentioned exceptionally sad things, exceptionally happy things, and acts of kindness, and The Florida Project is really a rolling series of all of those. Between the charm Brooklynn Prince brings to the film and the humanity Dafoe does, it’s like a shot of pure empathy. It’s well-crafted and beautiful, but more than any film this year it feels less like a film I watched than an experience lived.
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